I woke up, briefly panicked and confused at the stone surface above me, almost closing in on me. Was I back in the mines?! Was Lun’Kat’s lair, escape and freedom just a fever dream, my overactive imagination tantalizingly dangling freedom in front of me, pulling the wool over my eyes to the cruel reality that I was still trapped deep in the mines?
The egg was still in my grasp, and the light was streaming in through the windows Serondes made last night. The fact that he could casually make windows, when Remus didn’t even have glass, still blew my mind.
[Egg Incubation] was telling me that I was holding the egg wrong, and I shifted and shuffled about some to get it all right, along with upping the temperature. Up. And up. And up. It got to the point where I double-checked my mana, making sure that I was at a sustainable number. It wasn’t going down, so my regeneration was still outstripping my casting. Everything right in egg-land, I dismissed [Mantle], got up, and left to get breakfast.
I quickly checked my [Egg Incubation] level. 35.
I was having a stupidly hard time evaluating how good that leveling rate was. On one hand, I expected quick levels from new skills these days. I had [Passionate Learning], and all my recently acquired skills had shot up quickly. Also, no more dead zone.
At the same time, all of them had been under high stress situations. Normally, it’d take a year or so for a skill to level up to 30, but that was assuming I wasn’t constantly using it, and I wasn’t, like, singing for my life. The fact that I was already level 35 was quite the jump… although my old logic of “what was my leveling rate” was all based on living in the dead zone. Or, as the elves called it, the low experience area.
I’d been in no danger working on this egg. I had a strong multiplier, but that didn’t explain it. There was a gap in the experience I was getting. I was getting more than I expected.
The only thing that I could think of was the tier of the egg. Something interesting was inside. I’d have to keep working on it, and pray my skill was good enough.
Wait - maybe Serondes had [Teaching]? Or some uber elf-bullshit equivalent that was increasing my experience gain. For all I knew, elves all had [I’m an Elf!] and it was all the general skills rolled into one.
As I left the little hut, intending to go wash up - and oh, what a luxury that was! Being able to wash up in the morning! - a sudden wave of “well, DUH” inspiration hit me.
I was leveling [Egg Incubation]. By definition, that meant whatever was inside was still alive!
Captain Obvious, reporting for duty!
I finished getting out, seeing Aegion having breakfast, his forearms rippling in the-
No. Bad Elaine. No more crushes! I scolded myself, acknowledging the feeling of attraction, then letting it go. I shook my head.
Right. I was back on track. Even though I’d been visiting those arms in my dreams last -
“Morning!” Aegion waved to me. “Breakfast?” He asked, gesturing to some nice flat bread on the table.
“In a minute, just want to wash up first!” I briskly walked over to where the pond was, still covered by the Lava walls.
Only to half walk-in on Serondes and Awarthril, who’d had the same idea to wash up.
My poor eyes. My poor “no more crush” conviction. I didn’t know if I wanted to take the chance to feast on the sight, or walk away. Either way, my face was doing its best beet impression.
It wasn’t like I hadn’t seen naked people all the time in Remus, usually around the public baths. The elves were a whole different kettle of fish.
Or pond of fish, as it may be.
My self-discipline took over, and I walked away, back to the table. I knew they’d seen me, but they hadn’t called out or anything. Bless them.
“I think I’ll wash up after breakfast.” I couldn’t keep the embarrassed heat out of my voice, to Aegion’s knowing grin.
“Sounds good. Drink to wash it all down?” He asked, passing me a cup.
“Thank you.” I took a sip, spinning my head so I didn’t spray the entire breakfast spread with my spit.
“Oh dear gods.” I wailed. “How can something be so terrible!?”
His drinks seemed to be a coinflip of good or bad. I’m not sure spinning the wheel was worth it.
“Ah, another bust. Drat.” He took a tiny sip, shuddered, then poured out his own suspiciously-full cup.
“Too much salt.”
“Do you ever drink your own stuff?” I dumped my own cup out as I asked. Hey, Aegion was doing it, it was clearly acceptable. Also, I wasn’t counting ‘taking a small sip’ as drinking his own stuff, and Aegion clearly realized that.
“Only when I can’t find anyone else to drink it for me!” He poured something else into his cup, taking a tentative sip. A smile, and he downed the rest.
Revenge. Revenge was best served cold, but I’d take luke-warm. A plan was brewing in my mind, sweet vengeance plotted out.
However, the key to revenge was to not say anything. Screaming about how “vengeance would be mine!” and “you’ll pay for this!” was a great way to get nothing done, look like a complete idiot, and worse - it would let my target know that I was maging for them.
No, silence was the name of the game. Secrecy. Aegion wouldn’t know I was mad until my revenge was complete! Although, I could lay some of the groundwork for my revenge, AND poke some fun at him, all at once.
“Well, better me than someone who can’t neutralize poisons.” I hid the little smile on my face in a mouthful of bread.
Aegion gave me a look, like he wasn’t sure if I was poking fun at him, or entirely serious. Serondes and Awarthril came back, and I took the chance to pop off for a quick morning rinse, my ears burning at the memory of walking in on them.
No crush. I reminded myself, banishing the thoughts from my head.
We finished the morning up, then it was time to pack up. It was practically a game.
“Ready!” Awarthril yelled, standing next to the crate. Utter mayhem followed her sentence.
Serondes was at the table, grabbing and flinging plates, cups, silverware, food - everything - at her, as fast as he could. Meanwhile, Aegion had unplugged and corked up his various barrels of experimentation, and was throwing them wholesale at Awarthril.
Neither of them could move nearly as quickly as the physical [Warrior]. Moving so quickly she was just a blur, she expertly grabbed each item out of the air, and neatly placed it into the Spatial Box.
Kiyaya ran around the campsite, grabbing the occasional large item that was lying around and tossing it to Awarthril. Cordamo patrolled the skies above, spotting forgotten items here and there, then swooping down to grab them - or anything too delicate for Kiyaya to grab with her huge jaws - and adding them to the maelstrom of flying camping supplies.
He was giving the entire place a bird’s - snake’s? Couatl’s. - eye view from above.
In under a minute, the entire site was cleaned. I let out a low whistle, as Serondes went around to the Lava-huts he’d made, crumbling them into a pile of sand. Environmentally responsible.
“A full team of professional Rangers, doing this every day, couldn’t get a campsite cleaned and ready to go this fast.” I paid them the highest compliment I could imagine.
“Well, yeah.” Awarthril replied, hefting the box easily up onto one shoulder. “They can only do so much without a Dimensional Box. Are we ready to go?”
I looked around, noticing in the chaos my armor had gotten packed up.
“I’m all set!” I shuffled a little closer to Awarthril, not sure what was next. I was suspecting it would be like when I was on a Sentinel mission, where I’d pack up in the morning, throw everything in my bag, then start hiking to the next spot.
Sticky goop erupted from Awarthril, slapping onto all of our chests. It completely wrapped around my chest, effectively putting me into a harness of sorts, with the other end connected to Awarthril. I was a bit concerned - this wasn’t terribly nice - but Aegion and Serondes had gotten the same treatment, and they seemed to consider it perfectly normal.
I must’ve had a confused look on my face.
“[Rubbery Rope].” Awarthril explained. “Lets me yank you out of danger if needed, moving you faster than you could move yourself. What’s your vitality, so I don’t accidentally snap your neck?”
I kinda shrugged at that, the hardening ooze - it was nothing like rubber, in spite of the skill name - restricting my movement somewhat.
“Perks of being a healer. I can bounce back from almost anything, including a broken neck.”
I quickly flashed through the medicine, making a snap call.
“In fact, it’d probably be better for me to cleanly avoid whatever’s coming for me, and fix the damage from being jerked around, than take a partial hit.”
Awarthril frowned at that.
“I’d rather you got out of the way without being hurt either way. Come on, what’s your vitality?”
No reaction at all. Extra blah! Then again, they already knew my overall stats, so them being surprised would be surprising.
“Ok! We’re off!” Awarthril said, started to leisurely walk northwards. The rest of us followed along, like a trail of ducklings.
“Where are we headed to?” I asked, a little surprised at the pace. I knew we could all travel much faster than this. We were walking at a kid’s pace, not the superhuman jog, or run, that I knew we could all do - and probably maintain until nightfall.
“North! Your Poor Experience Zone is to the north and east, and we’ve gotten reports of Shimagu to the north and very slightly west of here. I figure we’ll head north, smash a Shimagu or two, using you to flush them out easily, then turn around and get you home before anything happens to your friends and family. Then, hey, who knows, maybe you’ll want to travel with us some more! Shimagu are a menace to everyone, and you’d be helping out your own countrymen by stopping their spread before they come too close to you.”
That sounded like a totally reasonable plan.
“Plus, we can teach you everything you need to know about being an Immortal, and give you a hand with your egg. I know you don’t have a lot of experience with it, and could use all the help you can get.”
Serondes jumped in here, walking by my side.
“I know that the early days of raising something that just hatched can be difficult! Most everything that hatches is weak and vulnerable in the early days, and quite a few creatures bond to the first thing they see.”
Aegion butted in.
“Something worth knowing about Immortals, is as a rule, they treat Mortals and Immortals differently. If another Immortal has a problem with a Mortal, well, the usual answer is to just ignore them. They’ll die out soon enough, as long as they don’t do something stupid like attack you.”
I felt there was a lot more being unsaid there.
Serondes tapped in, and Aegion gracefully let him say his piece.
“Even with all the prep, something can go wrong. I had perfectly prepared for the baby pegasus that I raised. However, it turned out to be a rare variant, and we never properly bonded as a result.”
There was a very unlady-like snort from Awarthril, but the whole thing sounded terrible, and I didn’t want to dig deeper into a sore spot.
“The tree over there is a Bomboa tree. They’re rare, but they hold a bunch of water. Their fruit is OK, but nothing at all like what we can grow back home.” Awarthril pointed to a stout tree.
“Now, another thing about Immortals is the importance of favors. Not every Immortal is rich, contrary to the stories, and we do have good use for normal coin. However, a favor can be priceless. You never know where someone will end up in life, and a favor gained today can be worth the world in a few thousand years, when the person who owes you has thousands of levels, and rare and fantastical skills.”
He gave a slow nod at me, and it clicked - Awarthril said she’d owe me a favor. Heck, if someone helped me out, then asked me to turn the clock back on their kid or something? Yeah, I’d totally do it. I couldn’t be the only one with rare skills, and given a few hundreds years for Awarthril to mature her skills? Good chance she could give me a solid helping hand down the line.
Yeah, I could see why favors were such a good currency. And speaking of rare skills, it sounded like my Immortality skill could be worth a ton. Which made me wonder - why didn’t elves aim for similar skills?
I internally cringed as I realized I’d missed almost all of Awarthril’s little botany lesson, and tried to consult my [Pristine Memories] for what’d been said - except Serondes was now talking about pet homes! I decided to listen to him, instead of eternally playing catch-up.
The elves took turns telling me things, teaching me, expecting that I could follow three disparate conversations that had nothing to do with each other at the same time. Because of course I could follow three conversations, and soak up all the knowledge they were teaching me.
Awarthril’s attitude was just a touch grating. She believed that she knew better than me - better than the rest of us - and that it was her elfesse oblige to correct, educate, and protect the rest of us.
It was tempered by the fact that she was utterly correct. I didn’t know any of this stuff. I hadn’t thought about cycles, how to improve my own stats and class quality when time wasn’t an issue. I hadn’t realized how valuable favors were, or how importantly they were treated. I’d tried to do long-term thinking, but I hadn’t known that mortals tended to build resentment towards Immortals in their midst - even family members. Helped explain why Night was so low-profile though, and some of this he could’ve told me.
I also didn’t know the local flora and fauna, which Awarthril was cheerfully correcting.
While juggling three conversations, watching where I was going - Awarthril cutting a path through the tall grass and ferns made it much easier than usual - I also tried to do some self-reflection, practically groaning as the answer came to me.
I’d properly smothered the crush in its cradle, but now instead of wanting to have fun times with Awarthril, I wanted to be her. At my core, in my little heart, I was intensely envious of the elves. I wanted what they had. I wanted to be them, to be able to walk through life with an easy gait, to have been raised in the most wonderful environment. Instead, I was a muddy human, and from the sound of the other species Aegion was telling me about, humans were closer to the bottom of the elvenoid food chain, than the top. By his reckoning, it went goblins -> gnomes -> humans, then a dizzying array of other species. Even then, there was a weird rock-paper-scissors going on in his estimation.
“See, goblins are arguably better than gnomes, due to their increased size and savagery. It gives them a proper leg up in a straight fight. Gnomes, however, are possibly better than humans, given their mastery of magic. Smart little buggers, I’ll give them that. They can enchant anything, and since it’s tiny? Well, they can usually work in more enchantments than most other crafters. At the same time, there’s no doubt that humans are better than goblins. Your sheer size and physical advantage makes being a human much better than a goblin. The fact that you only get one stat point per level hurts, but at least it’s a free point, which is the best. Still, there are arachne, cyclops, demons, dullahans, giants -”
Serondes smacked him. What was interesting was Aegion could’ve easily dodged. He didn’t, for some reason - perhaps sheer politeness?
“Ah fuck your horns hurt!” Serondes waved his hands in the classic ‘smarting’ move.
Nope. Not politeness.
“Elaine’s a human! She can’t help it! Don’t be a jerk.” Serondes swapped back to telling Aegion off.
I decided then and there that, if I did decide to pursue one of the elves, it would totally be Serondes.
“Ooof, right. I never thought of it that way.” Aegion gave me a little half-wave. “Sorry about that. I’m sure there are plenty of benefits to being a human. Like, uh…”
“Quit while you’re ahead.” Awarthril amusedly shot back.
I saw a moment to ask a few questions that I had rattling around.
“Out of curiosity, why don’t elves get an Immortality-granting skill? Like Awarthril, wouldn’t it be easier for you to get the skill yourself, versus leveling up hoping Kiyaya will get something? Or if nothing else, why hasn’t anyone gotten the skill, and, like, sell access to it or something? And why are we strolling like this? It’s nice, but…”
“In a rush?” Awarthril’s amusement laced her voice.
I opened my mouth, but she continued on.
“I’m choosing to focus on leveling myself and Kiyaya, because I’m not close to a reset. I don’t have a free class slot, and elves, well…”
Awarthril seemed to struggle to say the next part, her mouth opening and closing a few times as she started to say whatever it was, failing, and trying again.
“Elves, and other Natural Immortals, almost never get Immortality skills. It just doesn’t happen. We believe the System recognizes us as Immortal, and just doesn’t offer the skill. Why would it? We already have Immortality. It makes Immortality-granting skills virtually impossible outside of companion bonds. As for someone selling the skill? They do - for a ludicrous sum that all of us together could only pool a tiny fraction of what they want. They can afford to charge usurious prices, and they do.”
She shrugged and quickly changed the subject, not wanting to dwell on a potential failing. Evidence that lowly humans, 3rd from the bottom according to Aegion’s list, could do something better than the almighty elf.
“We’re all Immortals here. We have unlimited time. There’s no real need to rush about, here and there, zipping through the world. Nah. Slow down, smell the flowers. See the trees, listen to the wind. There’s a great big beautiful world out there, and we’ll get our heads lost in the clouds. We rag on mortals quite a bit, but it’s easy to forget the world as Immortals. They never do.”
Aegion stage-whispered, ruining Awarthril’s beautiful speech.
“Her mom told her that unless it was an emergency, she had to walk slowly. Something about being a flighty mess as a kid.”
Awarthril launched herself at Aegion with a scream of embarrassment, and a scene I was all-too-familiar with from traveling with the Rangers emerged.
I couldn’t help but chuckle.